• No work on site since June 2015
From Jeff Amechi Agbodo and Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
Right from conception, the Second Niger Bridge Project has been kicked about like football by every administration that had presided over the affairs of the country since 1999, when the present democratic dispensation took off.
Few days to the end of his eight-year tenure, former president Oluseugun Obasanjo launched the project with fanfare and nothing more than mobilization was paid to Julius Berger, which is handling the project.
Notwithstanding this, the Federal Government had always recognized the socio-economic and geopolitical importance of the Second Niger Bridge. Officials of every new administration that came to power at the federal level, after Obasanjo, would visit Onitsha, Anambra State to reassure the people of the Southeast of the coming of the new bridge.
A glimmer of seriousness was seen when the Goodluck Jonathan administration, probably with an eye on 2015 general election and second term in office, paid out about N10 billion to enable the project to take off, leading to Julius Berger commencing work at the site. Following Jonathan’s electoral loss and assumption of power by President Muhammadu Buhari, a recent investigation by Sunday Sun to ascertain the extent of work done at the Second Niger Bridge, has shown that project site is now like a ghost town with no worker or equipment at the site.
When Sunday Sun reporter visited the site of Julius Berger, to ascertain the level of work done so far, he was told at the gate that neither the site manager nor his staff were on ground to attend to inquiries.
But a worker with the company who craved anonymity said that work would soon commence at the project site, pointing out that work on the road from Asaba end of the project into the river was ongoing.
He attributed the delay on the job to non-mobilization of the company by the government, saying that the company was ready to face the job and finish it within the time frame, but needed money to take off.
He explained that the length of the road between the bridgehead and Oko-Amakom in Delta State is about six kilomtres.
“The road we are trying to do now is an obvious sign that work will soon start on the Second Niger Bridge project. It is the first step,” he assured.
But a staff of the Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority seen around the project area, who does not want his name to be mentioned, told our reporter that no work has been done at the site of the bridge project since President Buhari assumed office.
“Money is the major problem delaying the commencement of the project. It will take time, but it will be completed because the Federal Government is determined to continue with the project. The Second Niger Bridge is very important to everybody, both the Igbo and other Nigerians, who use the road.
“Secondly, the age of the existing bridge is worrisome because if anything happens to the existing one it becomes a serious problem. We thank God for the maintenance of the bridge, which has sustained it.
“We need the Second Niger Bridge for free flow of vehicular and human traffic. Most times gridlock will hold motorists on the bridge for hours. We all know the importance of the new bridge which I know that the Federal Government can give us no matter what it takes to complete the bridge,” he said.
Heavy equipment moved out of site
An artisan at the River Niger port, Mr Chimezie Olisa, also said that commencement of work at the Second Niger Bridge was not in sight as the construction company had moved some of its machines and heavy equipment out of the site. He noted that the company relocated its equipment to other places where they have jobs, pending the time the Federal Government would release money for the continuation of construction work on the bridge.
“We were all here, when heavy trucks came the other day and carried some of the machines and equipment from here. We asked them whether they were abandoning the project, they said no, and explained that they had some jobs elsewhere and needed to use the machines there and would return to the site when mobilized by the Federal Government.
“If you look from here you will see that nothing is happening at the project site. I don’t know why they are delaying the project, but government should do their own part. The new bridge will be good for us when completed because all the hold-ups will end, accident will be reduced because there is pressure on this bridge and people are suffering to cross this bridge to Asaba or Onitsha,” Olisa said.
Equally disturbed by the unfolding scenario over the bridge project is the chairman of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Anambra State, Elder Chris Eluemunor, who opined that the greatest mistake this present administration has made is the neglect of the Second Niger Bridge project.
His words: “This goes to confirm the fear of the Igbo that they are not wanted in this country. For instance, during the yuletide season, one witnesses the harrowing experience the people of the South-East and South-South passed through just to get home from their bases in Abuja, Lagos and other parts of Nigeria.
“This is the only entrance to the eastern part of the country and the majority of our people use the Onitsha axis to get to their homes in Imo, Anambra, Rivers, Abia, Cross River state and so on. The importance of the Second Niger Bridge cannot be over-emphasized and the president should know this. If you do not want us to continue labeling you as a sectionalist, then you must do that bridge because the project was there before you came in. Stopping it is a mark of neglect for the Igbo. It strengthens the resolve of some people in Igbo land to leave Nigeria because they are not wanted. That bridge is very important to us economically, socially and otherwise and anybody that stops that bridge is like killing the minds of the easterners not just the Igbo.”
Eluemunor also disclosed that he participated in the foundation laying ceremony of the bridge, and was part of the committee that was privileged to see the entire structure of the bridge when the then Minister of Works, Mike Onomelemen briefed members of the Ime-Obi meeting at the palace of the Obi of Onitsha.
He disclosed that the structural design would have decongested the old Niger Bridge completely because it was designed in such a way that those coming from Enugu axis would avoid Onitsha to get to Asaba while those coming from Asaba could also avoid Onitsha to get to Ozubulu and so many other areas.
He also tasked the South-East caucus of the National Assembly to wake up to their responsibility and ensure that the bridge project was not stalled. He urged them also to ensure that other allocations to the South East were not compromised or denied them in any way.
Similarly, the President of Bridgehead Markets, Mr Sunday Obinze appealed to the Federal Government to continue with the bridge and complete it to end the sufferings of the traders and their customers who use the existing bridge, to come to the market to buy goods.
“This bridge is very important to us more than any other person because we use the existing bridge 24 hours every day. If you come to this place in the evening you will see what I’m telling you, everywhere will be blocked. Most times traders who come to market after buying goods would wait till night for the gridlock to clear before they will begin to move to go back to their various places across the bridge.
“We thought that by now based on the promises of successive administrations that the Second Niger Bridge would be at the finishing stage, but it’s still at the foundation level, where the Jonathan administration left it. The traders are appealing to President Buhari to mobilize the contractor to the site to start work on the new bridge. As time goes on the existing bridge gets weaker and more congested due to influx of traders coming to Onitsha to transact business and buy goods. The new bridge will reduce pressure on the existing bridge and ease transportation problem,” Obinze believed.
A commercial bus driver, who plies the Onitsha/Asaba route, Mr Emeka Udemuo and a trader, Mrs Agnes Nwosa, recalling their ordeals on the existing bridge said that they had slept on the bridge on several occasions due to the gridlock that happens daily.
Mrs Nwosa said that to get around the problem, she decided to be using commercial motorcycles to move from Onitsha to Asaba when going to the market but while coming back with goods, she would board buses and hope for the best. She revealed that some traders who come to Onitsha to buy goods no longer bother to accompany their goods on the return trip. They simply send the goods through the waybill option. In essence, haulage companies consolidate the goods with other goods and then deliver the consignment early the next morning, to the shops of the traders who engage their services.
Udemuo shares his experience: “I remember the day my bus broke down on the bridge, it took me days to come and tow it out of the place because I had to wait till midnight when the gridlock was over before coming to tow it to the mechanic. The situation is affecting our business because it’s how many times you return from trip that count in a day, but this time you will be held at the bridge for hours and at the end of the day you will do account to your boss. But if they build the second bridge the road will be free and business will be flowing.”
Second Niger bridge is in national interest
When President Buhari assumed office on May 2015, he stopped work on the Second Niger project, but later decided to continue with the project, citing its importance, not only to the South East geopolitical zone, but also to the entire southern part of the country, as well as the North.
Last year June, the President sent the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, to visit the bridge project to assess it properly. After the inspection, Fashola told the media: “It is in the country’s interest to hold onto this project because any review will definitely raise the cost owing to the depreciation of the naira. The cost of the project was reached at the exchange rate of N154 per dollar.” He reiterated that the Federal Government was committed to completing the second Niger Bridge.
The minister said when completed, the bridge would ease transportation and exchange of goods and services across the country.
“I came here in pursuance of the commitment of the Federal Government and that of President Muhammadu Buhari to complete the bridge. It will give relief to the first Niger Bridge and also help in ensuring that it is now kept in a good state of repair and maintenance.”
The minister said that the Federal Government would compensate appropriate landowners and ensure that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was taken care of.
The bridge is the Federal Government’s first step towards a deepening public-private partnership (PPP) with some investors and the largest infrastructural work being embarked upon by the Federal Government.
Fashola called on the host communities to show commitment to the project, urging them not to interrupt its progress or engage in hostilities.
First Niger bridge built in December 1965
The first Onitsha-Asaba Niger Bridge was completed in December 1965. Built by the French construction firm, Dumez, the bridge linked the defunct Eastern and Western regions of Nigeria.
During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, in an attempt to halt the advance of Nigerian troops, retreating Biafran soldiers destroyed the River Niger Bridge at the Onitsha end, thus trapping the Nigerians on the other side of the river. After the war, the bridge was rehabilitated.
Then when former President Jonathan came into office, he started work to reinforce the bridge due to its economic relevance to the country. The first Niger Bridge has made Onitsha a major corridor of trade between the South East, South-South, South-West and North-Central zones.
At the time the bridge was conceived, Nigeria was mainly an agrarian economy. Thus, the bridge served as the avenue for transporting different agricultural produce such as palm oil and kernel, timber, rubber, among others. Prior to the construction of the bridge, these commodities were ferried across the River Niger between Onitsha and Asaba, using canoes.
Owing to rapid economic development and population growth, pressure began to mount on the first bridge, especially during festive periods, which made the demand for a second bridge imperative.
The old bridge, indeed, has been overstretched beyond its capacity coupled with its age. There is apprehension that the bridge might collapse with catastrophic consequences to lives and property if something urgent was not done.
To forestall such disaster, the idea for the Second Niger Bridge was mooted. The Second Niger Bridge was on the drawing board for many decades. Successive administrations in the country paid lip service to its construction. It was President Jonathan that took practical step towards executing the project in March 2014, and actual work started and later stopped after Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election to Buhari.
According to the plan of the project, it was to be executed in three phases, to bypass Onitsha and Asaba to connect the Owerri-Onitsha Expressway at Nkwerre-Ezunaka, and then cross Atani to the Asaba-Benin Expressway at Okpanam with a total length of 44 kilometres.
With this length, it is said that the Second Niger Bridge would exceed the length of the world’s longest bridge in China, which is 42.4km.
The Second Niger Bridge was awarded to Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd with the completion period of 48 months.
The project is being constructed under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme. A consortium, JB-NSIA, is working on the project on the basis of Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Transfer (DBFOT), at a total cost of N108 billion.
The Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) reviewed the concessionaire’s cost of N138 billion down to N108 billion.
The project phases will be constructed under engineering, procurement and construction contracts awarded by the Federal Ministry of Works (FMW) to the Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd.
The Federal Government had earlier committed to contribute N30 billion, which is 28 per cent of the project cost. The consortium would raise the remaining 72 per cent under a 25-year concession. The Federal Government under Jonathan’s administration committed N18.31billion, out of which N10.4 billion was disbursed, leaving a balance of N7.94 billion.
A team of local and international consultants was engaged through a rigorous and competitive procurement process.
The NSIA has spent the sum of $2.21 million on consultancy and another $247,586 on due diligence to determine the project viability.
The first-class advisory services are required to enable the project reach financial close – the point at which private capital is successfully raised.